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Opinion: A case for Hong Kong's hamsters

A hamster sits in a cage after being adopted by volunteers who stopped an owner from surrendering it to the government outside the New Territories South Animal Management Centre on January 20, 2022 in Hong Kong, China.
Louise Delmotte
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A hamster sits in a cage after being adopted by volunteers who stopped an owner from surrendering it to the government outside the New Territories South Animal Management Centre on January 20, 2022 in Hong Kong, China.

A fluffy new symbol of dissidence has surfaced in Hong Kong: the hamster.

The small, twitchy-nosed fuzzballs fit well as pets in a bustling city of apartment dwellers.

But: someone who works at a pet shop there, one customer, and 11 hamsters tested positive for COVID. Fearing that pets would fuel a larger outbreak, Hong Kong authorities told citizens to surrender all hamsters that were purchased after December 22nd, for what they called "humane dispatch."

More than 2200 hamsters from dozens of pet shops have been euthanized so far. Hong Kong's agriculture department reports some guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas have been exterminated, too.

"We don't want to cull all the animals," Thomas Sit, assistant director of Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation department, told the New York Times. "But we have to protect public health and animal health. We have no choice."

Hong Kong's "zero-COVID strategy" has meant stringent lockdowns during the pandemic. Schools have been closed, and playgrounds shut, restaurants closed by 6 p.m. Much air travel has been canceled. And the infection rates have stayed low.

But the City University of Hong Kong's Center for Animal Health and Welfare calls the risk of contracting coronavirus from pets "negligible." Scientists and world health officials agree. Out of 113 hamsters surrendered to Hong Kong's authorities so far, just one has tested positive.

Washington Post reporters quoted a woman who asked not to be named, who said her mother, who was worried by government commands, told her to get rid of her hamster. She refused.

"I won't throw you out if anything happens to you, as you are my family," she told her mother. "Same goes for my hamster; it is my family."

Some hamster owners have logged into a messaging platform used during mass anti-government protests before the pandemic began. They found thousands of people in Hong Kong, operating with names like Life on Palm, and Cute Hamster Group, defying government edicts to take in hamsters that might otherwise be euthanized, that people were too scared to keep.

The Hong Kong government has called the outcry "irrational."

This "Hamster Uprising" is far from the scale of the 2019 mass protests for the freedoms many in Hong Kong believe they were guaranteed. But each hamster spared may be a small act of defiance, protection, and love. What could be more rational than that?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.